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Beasts And Demons

Even before I counted them, I could tell the congregation was at a record low. Sundays had never looked so bad. Twenty people barely filled the front two rows of pews, leaving an ocean of dark wood stretching out behind. I looked down on them from the pulpit, ridiculously high up to preach to such a small group, but it was what they expected. They were the die-hards - the Johnsons, the McGruigers, the Stevensons, among others. Families and individuals who wanted or hoped, perhaps, that there might be more to religion. People like me.

I wasn't surprised at the poor attendance. Science had almost killed religion, quite by accident. The right research at the right time, and wham! Science had proved the existence of God.

It came as a shock to everyone, and for a few glorious moments every church was overflowing with worshippers. But the research had more to say. Out went the miracles - for the same science that proved there was a god disproved any chance of miracles. No water into wine. No healing the sick. No feeding the five thousand. All impossible. And at the same time, out went prophets, angels, heaven. All that was left was God.

But science didn't have all the answers. Though we knew of God, we did not know Him. Did he hear us? Could we talk to him? What, in fact, was he doing? All good questions. And while others dismissed God and left, a few of us stayed and hoped for answers.

I cast my eye across them, and said, "What is the purpose of God?"

My small congregation stopped its nervous fidgeting and looked up at me. Immediately I regretted the question, doubting for a moment whether I could answer it to my satisfaction, let alone theirs. But then years of experience delivering sermons came to my assistance.

"Do not consider the purpose of God, for that is beyond reach. Focus only on your purpose. What is your place on this earth? What have you done to make it better? ..."

It was a good sermon in the end, and even as I went through the formality of shaking hands with the congregation as they left, I saw real happiness in people's faces. Relief, perhaps, that I had managed to make this all seem worthwhile for another week.

As afternoon rolled around I drove out into the country, hiding my face as I pulled down the small lane that ran past Derek Jennings' farmhouse. I knew he would never forgive me if he saw me, consorting with the enemy that disturbed his cattle. I drove down the country lanes and stopped at the gate to a field. Deep ruts ran across the grass from the continuous passage of heavy vehicles. The car would never make it, so I set out on foot, following the ruts up a hill. And there, from the top, I saw it again. A huge metal dome, several miles across. Sunlight glinted off the polished blue-black metal as diggers and cranes and lorries fussed round it. Even as I started down the hill towards it, I could hear the sound of motors and engines and tools.

As I drew near, I saw a single man staring at the construction, almost as still as the giant metal structure. I walked to him, patted him on the shoulder and said, "Good afternoon, Patrick."

The man whirled round, then grinned and tipped an imaginary hat at me. "Good afternoon Father MacKenzie. I didn't expect to see you out here."

We shook hands, friends reunited briefly. Patrick Leahy was my biggest competition for the Sunday congregations, but respectful despite that. I nodded towards the building and asked, "So how's the House?"

"The House" was the affectionate name given to the construction by the builders, and rapidly adopted by the rest of the world. It was indeed intended to be a house, but for hundreds of people. Science, in finding God, had also found a way to shut him out. The dome, with its all-metal construction, was part of it.

"The House is fine, Father."

"And yourself?"

"Oh, the usual. Death threats and begging letters." He shrugged, then laughed again.

For all his joviality, it was no joke. The project had always had mixed reactions, though its intentions were good enough, if not to my liking. Volunteers were sought and selected to live in the dome, with one goal - to be everything they could be, free from God's influence. The metal dome, with its chemically processed exterior and woven silicon inserts, would provide the mechanism. Some considered it blasphemous, and sent the death threats. Others, starting to believe in the concept and realising they had missed the selection process, sent letters begging to be included. Me, I tried to look sure of my beliefs and carry on as normal.

"You're still sure you want to go ahead with this then?" I asked.

Patrick nodded, orange curls bouncing. "Oh, definitely. Besides, the world wouldn't let me back out now."

I had to agree. The dome, and Patrick with it, were famous. Now that it was nearing completion, the media were going into overdrive. Men truly living without God? How amazing!

I had my doubts about the idea though. "But if you could, Patrick? Would you drop out?"

"No, Father. I think this is the right thing to do."

"But living without God. I mean, really living without Him. Are you sure that's wise?"

Patrick looked thoughtful for a moment, then watched distractedly as a lorry of blue-black panels went past. He turned to me and said quietly, "No. No, I can't be sure about it. But then, we can't be sure about what God does either. We may know he's up there - " He gestured towards the sky. "- but that's it. We know he doesn't do miracles. We know he doesn't do disaster, or weather, or lightning. We have explanations for all these things. Science has explanations. Real mathematically based ones. Everything that happens has been explained. So as I figure it, either God's meddling in subtle ways, or else he's ... he's little more than Derek Jennings' cows. Just ambling around up there, chewing the cud."

My temper flared. Patrick frequently said these things; little challenges to my beliefs. Mostly he didn't even realise he was doing it. And yet, as I forced myself calm, I knew I would ignore his comments if I hadn't considered them myself.

"You can't just write God off like that. He... he does things for us."

"Like what? I don't want to insult you Father, but I think it's time we moved on. This project, the dome, everything - it's about being everything we can be. Away from God's influence and excuses for bad religions. Just people being the best people they can."

"And you need to shut God out for this?"

Patrick sighed. "Why cloud the issue with God? What are we ever going to be if that's all we worry about? What he's doing, what he's thinking? Does it matter? I say we step away, put ourselves out of his influence, and go for it. See what we can be."

"And if it doesn't make any difference?"

"Then we'll all look very silly. But Father - I worry that it will make the difference. I worry that despite your loving God," and I noticed here how he stressed the term, "we could be so much more."

"But God helps us. He guides us. The Bible..."

"The Bible is full of lies and fairytales!"

My voice raised to match Patrick's. "God's word was written by Men! Your Men. The same kind that you want to shut away to see how good they become."

We stopped there, both fuming for a moment as we considered the impasse we had reached. Anger was unfamiliar to me, but it scared me that Patrick might be right. Patrick, in turn, considered me carefully, before breaking out in a grin and laughing.

"Ah, shit, I can't argue with a priest on a Sunday. Can we do this tomorrow?"

I had to laugh at that, despite my frustrations. "You're a rascal, Patrick. I should've known you'd be trouble one day."

"That's the spirit Father. Listen, I hate to be off, but I have things to do. Dome waits for no man. Will you come by to see the grand Closing-Of-The-Door?"

"Wouldn't miss it, Patrick."

"Excellent. See you later, then."

We parted ways then, Patrick heading off to set right the final building work, and me heading back to my car, wondering.

I pondered Patrick's words as I returned to church to deal with the afternoon's confessions. What if Patrick was right? What if we could be so much more without God? Or what if He really was a simple creature, unfazed and unaware? The questions were not new, of course, but never before had they seemed so significant.

I pushed the ideas away as a figure stepped into the confessional next to me. Through the dark grill I could just make out a heavy mane of blonde curls. Elaine McGruder. Sure enough, Elaine's soft voice came from behind the panel.

"Forgive me Father, for I have sinned."

The sound of her voice cleared my own questions for a moment. Elaine had come to church with her family since she was young; I had baptised her myself. She was a sweet child, with unerring faith. A rock, as it were, for wayward priests.

"Yes, my child. What is it that troubles you?"

"Father, I... I was wondering about the project over the hill. And..."


"I considered not coming to church this morning."

I was shocked, stunned into silence a moment until I heard Elaine's voice again, querying, "Father? Are you okay?"

I regained my composure as best I could. "Yes, child, I'm fine."

Her voice came concerned again. "What about my confession? Is it really bad, Father?"

What could I say? How hypocritical would I be to criticise her after my own doubts earlier that day? I struggled for the right thing to say, but could only manage, "God knows we are only human, child. God expects us to have doubts."

"He does?"

"Yes, my child. That is why faith is valuable."

There was a pause, possibly weighing up whether the question was understood and the answer made sense. Then I heard the door to the confessional open and Elaine stepped out.

I wished for a moment I could confess myself, pretend the doubt could magically go away with a few Hail Mary's, but sadly not.

Several days passed, and the time came for the dome to be activated. I met Patrick outside, watching the last people entering through the big metal door. No doubt the media would have a field day with a priest being there.

"You know the real reason that door's so thick?" asked Patrick. "It keeps the press out." We both laughed at that. "Seriously, I'm glad you came."

"Well, I had to know really."

"Yeah. There's still time for you to come along. We could use you, a good and honest man and all. You might have to change profession of course."

"I'll come if I see you in church on Sunday."

Patrick laughed, then looked sad. "Yeah."

A man with a camera walked to the door, whistled, and beckoned to Patrick. "Well, time for me to go. They'll need me in there to start up the machine."

"I thought you were keeping the press out?"

"Someone has to record our adventures. You'll be watching re-runs of it for years to come."

We shook hands, and he walked through the entrance, turning just briefly to wave for the cameras. Then the huge metal door swung back, closing surprisingly softly on powerful motors. The sounds of bolts came from inside, and then silence.

Just as the press people started recounting the project's history again, a low electronic hum came. The gathered crowd cheered suddenly; the system worked. It made my heart sink to hear it.

And then suddenly a loud metal bang came from inside the dome. The cheering faded, gradually at first, then quickly as the banging became more and more frequent. The crowd exchanged quiet words, uncertain if this was meant to be happening.

Another enormous bang came, and the door buckled but held firm. It was then I felt my stomach drop away from me. I feared for Patrick and the others. My doubts receded suddenly; years of reading the Bible reasserted themselves. Wasn't God our Lord Protector?

I shouted for someone to get them out as more banging rang from the metal and further dents appeared in the skin of the dome. Then there was running and commotion.

I waited and prayed, sure of myself again, as a cutting torch was fetched and the slow process of opening the dome was started. I feared the worst already; I feared that now even faith in God would do no good. Slowly they cut through the metal to the power generator, shutting down the machine that made the dome work, and abruptly the banging and din from inside stopped.

I think everyone feared the worst then, but diligently they cut further into the side of the dome until finally a metal panel fell away. A small team of brave volunteers was sent inside - and, of course, one news crew.

I left when they started removing the bodies.

Days later the news reports still haunted me. The bodies were bloody and twisted, incomplete and unrecognisable. I mourned Patrick's death as best I could, though they were unsure still which body it was.

The TV news teams recovered the video footage from inside. It was short and confused, a chaotic swirl of mad panning and bouncing off the floor. Mostly it was indistinct, but there was one image shown again and again on the TV. It was freeze-framed and enhanced, but even at the strange camera angle, there was clearly something huge, winged and horned.

A real life demon.

Church was crowded the following Sunday. Everyone's faith was suddenly restored. As I stepped up to the pulpit, the crowd hushed expectantly. I thought of Patrick and the others with him - so desperately wrong, yet trying to do something good. I would at least spread the message.

"What is the purpose of God?" I asked, watching the expectant crowd. "A friend of mine once likened God to a cow, a dumb beast that roams unthinking. But there are also demons." The crowd nodded in agreement. "Science proved God for us, and science has shown He is no dumb beast. His purpose is to protect us from the demons."

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